How to Let Go of Self-Attachment (And Why It’s Important)
Most of us identify with our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as our “real self.” Even though thoughts, feelings, and sensations constantly change, in our mind they have coagulated into a strong, solid sense of “I.”
The vast majority of people live their entire lives believing in and operating from this strong sense of self.
That might be okay if this stronghold on the self as real, solid, and almost unchanging didn’t bring about so much suffering.
For example, our “I” makes up a lot of painful stories about our “self.”
I can’t handle life.
It’s all my fault.
I’m not safe in this world.
Making a mistake is not okay.
I’ll never succeed.
The list can go on endlessly.
Our “I” also makes up a lot of stories about others too, which are often inaccurate. Often, these stories cause us to behave in ways that hurt ourselves or others.
Where did this “I” come from? If this “I” is so bothersome, can we get rid of it? Do we need this “I” to survive and thrive in the real world?
The 4 Types of “I” Identification
In his book, Open Heart, Open Mind, Awakening the Power of Essence Love [affiliate link], Tsoknyi Rinpoche identifies 4 levels of “I” identification.
Solid I ( and Solid Other)
The Precious I
The Social I
The first 3 are grounded in the traditional Buddhist view of “I” or “ego.” The 4th was adopted by Tsoknyi Rinpoche based on his own life experience and his conversations with Western psychologists.
Let’s take a look at each type of “I,” how it develops, and how it can help or harm you.
The Mere I
You could call the “mere I” an “almost I.”
It’s the vague sense of self we have as an infant or very young child. It can be described as a fluid stream of sensory experience that hasn’t yet formed into a firm sense of “I.” You’re aware of your experiences like warmth and cold, wet and dry, comfort and discomfort, and respond accordingly. You don’t label or apply words to your experience. You just know when you’re hungry or your diaper is soggy or full.
Babies just experience. And because a baby isn’t busy labeling and categorizing everything around her, she has a lot more space for pure qualities like love and flowing in the moment. That’s why almost everyone smiles when they see a baby; we’re attracted to their purity.
Of course, babies aren’t 100% pure. They have personalities and predilections from birth, some charming, some less so. If you believe in karma, you realize babies bring past karmic patterns along as well.
But generally speaking, babies don’t, as yet, have a concrete sense of “I.”
The Solid I
But change is inventible - the very essence of life itself. And because change can be frightening, a young child, reinforced by its caregivers who believe in their own solid sense of self, gradually begins to develop the “Solid I.”
She learns to make distinctions between herself and others, and between herself and objects. This process happens naturally as a child explores and experiences her world - she bumps into things, hears unfamiliar noises, or contracts in fear if her caregivers fail to respond in a timely way.
The adults in her life simultaneously teach her to differentiate people and things from one another, and how to give them the “right” names. A spoon is not a knife or a fork and mama is not papa.
Gradually, the child begins to identify a sense of “I’ in the middle of all her experiences. At first, she identifies this “I” with her body. Later, she begins to identify this “I” with her thoughts and feelings too. Eventually, she comes to believe she is her thoughts, emotions, sensations, and experiences.
And just like she begins to assign solid qualities to herself, the child also begins to attribute solid, dualistic qualities to others in her world: friend or enemy, good or bad, kind or mean.
And because of this, her love now becomes conditional.
So the child moves from this tiny being who has a fluid, sensory experience of the world to one who differentiates between self and others, good and bad, like and dislike.
The “I” has become a solid sense of self.
The Precious I
More and more, this solid sense of self begins to focus on and prioritize its own desires and aversions, over the wants or needs of others. “I want this. I don’t want that.” And so the Precious “I” is born. In Buddhism, this tendency to think of one’s self first and foremost is traditionally called “self-cherishing.”
If you think you’re not subject to self-cherishing, take a look at yourself on any given day.
How much times do you spend thinking about your own wants or needs in comparison to the amount of time you spend thinking about the needs and wants of others? Even if you’re in a co-dependent relationship, thinking an awful lot about someone else, you’re likely doing so because on some level it affirms your beliefs about your solid self.
The Precious I adapts two mechanisms to preserve itself:
She protects her ideas and beliefs about herself at all cost.
She looks to others or external situations to affirm her identity.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche also calls the Precious I the “Addictive I.” The Addictive I always needs something outside of itself to feel okay — whether it’s food, drugs, or affirmation.
The Social I
Tsonyi Rinpoche added the “Social I” to the mix based on his own experience and his conversations with psychologists.
This is the “I” we develop in relation to other people. You could call it your persona or mask. It’s the part of you that pretends to be someone other than who you are in order to fit in, please others, and receive approval.
These various forms of “I” develop in stages to some extent, but as one layer is added upon another, they intertwine and support one another.
Living from the “Mere I”
What to do?
You can see how adhering to this solid or precious sense of self brings on so much tension and distress.
You can’t go back to being a baby, but could you readapt the “mere I” as your primary way of being?
You don’t need to extinguish the other forms of “I” completely. That would be impossible. And in fact, they can be useful to successfully navigating daily life. For example, if you see a bear bounding toward you on a hiking path, self-preservation will kick in, a bit of the “precious I,” perhaps. You also need to have a healthy sense of self-esteem to accomplish good in this world. No one would accuse the Dalai Lama of not having a distinct sense of "I.”
“The challenge the Buddha proposed was to learn to rest in openness of the ‘mere I’ even while using the various other "I's" to maintain a sense of warmth and openness even when for instance, facing someone who disagrees with you.” - Tsoknyi Rinpoche
But when you live more and more from the “mere I,” there’s less attachment to the other forms of “I” and thus far less suffering.
For example, if someone attacks you, let’s say they call you “stupid,” you’re not completely thrown off track. You don’t immediately respond in rage. You’re less attached to the solid sense of a self that believes it’s intelligent, no one should ever question your intelligence, and no one should ever insult you.
You’re also less attached to the need for affirmation from others. Because you don’t automatically feel threatened by someone else’s opinion of you, you feel more open to hearing where this person is coming from. Maybe they can teach you something about yourself? Or maybe they’re in pain? That creates a bridge toward interpersonal understanding and harmony rather than a blockade.
The more you remain in the “mere I,” the more your unhelpful stories - about yourself, others, and the world - begin to dissolve. You no longer need to block any particular thoughts, emotions, and sensations. You see them all as an expression of the infinite possibility of life and know they’re a passing phenomena. You don’t have to attach to them and make stories about them.
The “mere I” is also much closer to what Tibetan Buddhists call the essence of mind, nature of mind, or basic spark of being, which is our open, clear, and loving awareness, sometimes called “no self” in other forms of Buddhism. This awareness experiences life directly without conceptual constructs.
So the “mere I” can be a bridge to the essence of mind.
3 Ways to Soften Self-Attachment
How do you unravel all these conditioned layers of “I” and get back to your basic being? Here are 3 ways to get started.
1. Knowledge. Just knowing about these different forms of “I” empowers you to step back when you find yourself completely entranced by one of your stories or adamantly defending a belief your hold about yourself. It will be easier to come back to the present moment. You’ll be able to observe your thoughts and emotions about the situation with a bit more distance. That itself can bring tremendous relief.
Read More: How to Stop Taking Things Personally
2. Mindfulness Meditation. The practice of mindfulness meditation allows you to experience the transitory nature of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. It also helps you to notice the inner movements of your mind and the outer world without judgment or interpretation - like the “mere I” or it’s sometimes said with “bare awareness.”
With practice, your thoughts and emotions begin to settle down. As they do, you start to feel more space between you and your thoughts and emotions. It’s almost like you’re watching the drama of your life with more perspective. You start to wonder why you took it all so seriously. From this place, all the stories, attachments, and fixations begin to gradually fade away.
This is not disassociation or denial. You allow thoughts and emotions to arise, you experience them directly, but you don’t necessarily hold on to them. When you do this repeatedly, the unhelpful patterns of thought and emotion naturally weaken and return less and less.
This new found sense of spaciousness - not being entrapped by every thought and emotion - also provides opportunities to make wiser choices. Will you grind on in the same old negative thought pattern or drop it? Will you respond with an intense emotion or see how unhelpful or unnecessary it is?
At the same time, you start to identify with the awareness of mind as the center of your being (metaphorically speaking) rather than it’s projections, the thoughts and emotions. Thus the qualities of openness, clarity, and warmth, associated with the nature of mind or the basic spark of being, begin to naturally emerge.
Here are some article to read if you would like to learn more about mindfulness meditation and how to use mindfulness to work with emotions:
3. Kindness and Compassion. Acting with kindness and compassion is one of the best ways to combat self-cherishing and over identification with a solid “I.”
Instead of always concentrating on your own wants, needs, and worries, shift your focus to others. What can you do for someone else today? Get into the habit of thinking of others as least as much as you think of yourself. Engage in random acts of kindness and deliberate ones.
Most people feel better when they help others. It takes them outside of themselves, away from the incessant focus on the self. When they see the depth of another’s suffering, it can also put their own difficulties into perspective; it may no longer seem so important or so big.
“One of the beautiful things about service is that we are simultaneously taking part in the well-being of ourselves. This points to something essential about service: when it comes from an overflow and a sharing of inner abundance, it is enriching and life affirming - not only for us, but for anybody involved in whatever we are trying to serve.” - Adyashanti
Kindness, compassion, and service to others are not the same as being a doormat, a martyr, or codependent. As Adyashanti says, your willingness to help or serve comes from a place of abundance not neurosis.
Has the Ego Self Helped or Harmed You?
Of course, if you have low self-esteem, you’ll need to develop a healthy sense of self as a first step toward living from bare awareness, otherwise you might just use spirituality to bypass your painful wounds.
You could use “I am” affirmations to boost your self-esteem or find ways to strengthen one or more branches on the self-love tree. Learn more about these ideas in these articles.:
Please don’t believe what I’ve shared here simply because I’ve said it or Tsoknyi Rinpoche said it in his book. Really think about it for your self.
Has a belief in the solid or precious “I” helped you? Has it harmed you? How, exactly? Think of specific examples.
Then decide for yourself whether living from the “mere I” would help you live a better life.
For most of us, softening our attachment to self is an on-going process, even a life-long journey. Because our sense of “I” is so solid, you know how reactive you can be at the slightest provocation, it can take a long time to peel away the layers of the conditioned self.
Letting go of too much self-attachment is a journey, with many different twists and turns along the way; one you have to experience for yourself. No one can snap his or her fingers and take you there. Some spiritual teachers can give you a glimpse of what it’s like to really let go of the self, at least for a few moments. But it’s still up to you to learn how to sustain it each and every day.
As the grasping to self dissolves, a wonderful feeling of lightness and freedom arises. You come in touch with a more fundamental part of your “self” that is so much more vast, open, spacious, and loving than the “Solid” or “Precious I” could ever be.
Like Dorothy tapping your heels together, you realize, “There’s no place like home.”
Thank you to Tsoknyi Rinpoche for these teachings on the “Mere I.” If you would like to learn more, I highly recommend his book, Open Heart, Open Mind, Awakening the Power of Essence Love. [affiliate link]
Have you previously heard of or practiced the idea of non-attachment, especially lessening attachment to the self? How has that worked for you? If you haven’t heard of it before, do you think it would be useful to try it now? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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